Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Culture is a weapon of mass destruction

If patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, “culture” must be the last refuge of murderous patriarchs. Under the guise of what “our culture” requires, some people directly or indirectly justify rape and murder.

This was never clearer than last week when several callers to a South Africa radio call-in programme seem to suggest that the two lesbians who were brutally raped and murdered in Medowlands, Soweto the previous week really deserved to be killed because what they did was “sinful” and in any case not part of “African” culture.

Sizakele Sigasa, lesbian activist and outreach worker with the Positive Women’s Network (PWN), and her friend, Salome Masooa, were first tortured and then murdered and judging by the response of some callers to that programme, it is difficult not to conclude that the crime was motivated by extreme homophobia.

In South Africa, callers to radio stations usually express outrage at the rape and murder of other human beings and call for the reinstatement of the death penalty. Political parties make statements to condemn the brutal attacks and vow revenge.

But when these two women, who loved each other, were raped and murdered, the sympathy evaporated and the ugly underbelly of South African patriarchy was revealed. Why did the ANC woman’s league not issue a statement condemning the attack? Why are we still waiting for the DA or the ID to issue a statement expressing their horror and concern? Are they just spineless cowards or do they secretly share the views of those callers who think that lesbians should be raped to teach them what a “real” man needs?

At the heart of this outrage is a gutless fear to confront the poisonous use of “culture” – especially, let me be brutally and dangerously honest here, “African culture” - to justify the naked abuse of male power. All over the world people invoke culture as if it is a fixed, eternally constant thing without any inherent normative meaning. Culture, in this view, is above judgment. This invocation of culture is supposed to stop any further argument because once “my culture” tells me what is right and wrong, I am a mere zombie who has to follow that culture no matter what.

In South Africa, where the progressive values enshrined in the Constitution clash dramatically with the patriarchal values embodied by both traditional societies and the church, “culture” is often invoked in this way to close down the progressive voices that are fighting for respect for human dignity and difference.

(This is a delicate argument to make because it can easily be interpreted as a racist rant. So let me be clear: I am ranting yes, but I am ranting not against “African culture” in general, but against the certain use and abuse of the concept by some people to justify hatred of and violence against those who do not conform to the “culture”.)

Am I the only one to think that these arguments are deeply demeaning to those who make them because it purports to rob individuals of any agency? Suddenly one is not a human being who can make ethical choices about how one must live one’s life, one is merely an instrument of one’s “culture”. This kind of thinking plays into the most disgusting racial stereotypes about black people – but they do justify hatred and killing of lesbians so, I suppose for some people this is a small price to pay.

But of course cultures are not static and cultural practices and beliefs do have an ethical dimension. Afrikaner culture required me to support apartheid, force black “servants” to eat out of tin plates and to turn a blind eye to the torturing of ANC guerillas. Those aspects of Afrikaner culture were disgusting and amoral and at some point I had to dig deep and confront the ugly side of my culture and to change my own ideas about what my culture is all about.

Individuals who claim that homosexuality is “un-African” and that all “true Africans” must hate and be repelled by gay men and lesbians, have a similar ethical journey to make. Such a journey may reveal that it is homophobia, and not homosexuality, that is “un-African”.

After all, the sodomy laws and the attitudes that go with that were brought to Africa by white missionaries and the colonial masters. This abhorrence of homosexuality is therefore the product of the colonial mind. Those who think it is part of African culture to be homophobic are therefore sad captives of a colonial mindset and are ironically prisoners of the white man’s bigotry.

For some, there is clearly another freedom struggle to fight, but for the woman and men who have been assaulted and killed because they are gay, this freedom would have come too late.


Africannabis said...

I'd like to take a rusty blade to this culture story.

It offends me that in South Africa it's illegal to circumcise girls (although it happens much to my shock and horror) but not boys...

I though equality before the law etc... but here it's a cultural thing that we have in South Africa - with so many disfigured and maimed if not dead boys in South Africa annually...

"My Culture" - what a godsend!

The number of initiates who have died this winter in the Eastern Cape has increased from 12 to 22. Since 2001, 210 people have died in the province during the initiation period.

Botched circumcisions, as well as exposure to cold and alleged severe assaults have been the main contributors to the increasing number of deaths. However, many young men have gone through the transition to manhood under safe conditions, especially in areas where circumcision has been practised for many years.

Meanwhile 13 female initiates were killed in the Eastern Cape when a rondavel, in which they were sleeping in, was gutted by fire. - SABC

Farren Hayden said...

"Culture" is a behavioral description, not, in and of itself, a justification.

Obviously one of the evils of colonialism was the utter contempt for indigenous culture settlers brought with them. One cannot usefully critique the merits or failures of a particular culture that one has made no effort to understand in its own terms.

So regaining pride in one's heritage and culture has naturally and, IMHO, sensibly, become woven into the dialog of political movements like BC.

But acknowledging that one must understand a culture and appreciate it on its own terms before criticising it doesn't conversely imply that all practices found in traditional culture are noble or desirable.

And using cultural norms as a priori premises for ethical reasoning is profoundly misguided, unless the person doing so believes we have reached the end of history and no further evolution is possible.

Pierre de Vos said...

Farren, thanks for the eloquent elaboration on my post. I could not have said it better.

Africannabis said...


Africannabis said...

but I must say - evolution stops - when this topic is cut wrong.